The rewarding nature of building the family of your employees. As you grow, you watch people get married, become successful in other ways, or even have kids because they met in our restaurants. It feels good to see people start from the bottom and work their way to the top. We created these places for memories to be made. It’s beyond rewarding to know that we are a part of not only our guest’s journeys but our team’s as well.
As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Lee Maen.
Lee Maen is a founding partner and visionary of Innovative Dining Group (IDG), behind some of the most successful restaurants and lounges in the Los Angeles, Scottsdale, and Las Vegas markets. First recognized for pioneering the modern sushi movement in 1997 with their inaugural restaurant Sushi Roku and for inventing the contemporary steakhouse with BOA Steakhouse in 2001, IDG celebrates over 23 years in business, expanding internationally at the same rate as domestically.
IDG is among the first contemporary American restaurant groups to open concepts in the UAE with BOA Abu Dhabi. In 2002, IDG introduced Katana on the iconic Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, offering a dynamic dining experience that fuses modern sushi and authentic “robatayaki” made with premium, artfully prepared ingredients. Maen brings a wildly successful real estate and business background, which is intrinsic to the success of the company. His talents enabled the restaurant group to open their biggest, most lucrative restaurant in 2009 (BOA Steakhouse) during the deepest part of the recession by capitalizing on real estate opportunities and consistently offering the highest value proposition in the market.
In 2021, Lee Maen and Philip Cummins of Innovative Dining Group, along with the original founder of PizzaRev,, Nicholas Eckerman, introduced Yakumi, a first-of-its-kind premium fast-casual sushi concept in Burbank, CA.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?
During my MBA at UCLA, my partners and I owned a small nightclub in Hollywood. After graduating, I had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and decided that I didn’t want to work for anyone else. So rather than going into consulting or banking, like a lot of my other classmates, my passion was in hospitality, focusing on opening restaurants. My partners and I opened our first location 6 months later, Sushi Roku on Third Street. For me, opening a restaurant allowed me to use both left-brain and right-brain thinking. The food and making it a work of art, being my right-side thinking, and then the business side of it, which requires left-side thinking. I loved both of these aspects, making the restaurant business my passion.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
We loved sushi back in the day, and at that time, the sushi experience was different. It was mostly small mom and pops in strip malls. We wanted great food, but also in a fun and beautiful atmosphere, creating an experience that’s unforgettable. We decided to do something for everyone — sushi for aficionados, but open to novices as well. A place that didn’t exist, a high end sushi bar with a vibe. We like sushi because it’s healthy, clean and adventurous.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
At our first restaurant, many many years ago, the city was in the process of redoing the streets. I had been talking to them about working around our hours and possibly doing it over night to avoid closing our restaurant. We were fighting and going back and forth, and then the tractors started showing up .I went out there and literally stood in the middle of the street with my hands up so the tractor had no choice but to run me over in order to come and block the restaurant, so they obviously had to stop. Then a friend who was coming to the restaurant pulled his car in front of the tractor and blocked it. Long story short — we won and they worked around us, they even put a big freeway green sign up that said “The Famous Sushi Roku Open During Construction,” and I guess the learning lesson from this is: do whatever it takes to make it happen, don’t stop, don’t take no for an answer.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Maintaining focus was one of the hardest things. Not being swayed by what’s hot at the moment and what a competitor is doing and getting pulled away from your goals. I learned to not let success go to our heads and to stay true to making sure every single guest’s meal is perfect. We realized, it’s not just the celebrities that are dining with us, it’s the people who come every single day that keeps us in business. In the end, we’re simply feeding people so don’t let that go to your head, and remember, that every meal can be someone’s last if it’s not great.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
First, we start with something we like, something that is not usually available or in restaurants — or a version of something we’ve seen elsewhere, but we want to make it different or better. We also want something that hits the masses. Just because I like it, doesn’t mean everyone else will, so it needs to be something that many will like. Something not too exotic, but still a work of art with our spin on it paired with amazing fresh ingredients.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Either, an amazing kaiseki in Kyoto, Japan where you sit there and eat the most beautiful bites you’ve ever had — or a very different option for me would be the food in a local restaurant in Florence, Italy that’s been there for many years and you just have the chef feed you the way their mama did them.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Like I said, we start with what we want but can’t get. We are definitely inspired by travel. We want to do things that are innovative or have a twist on what’s already out there. Something you just can’t get somewhere else or do it a little better.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We are working on a new BOA Steakhouse and Sushi Roku in a great location- our first ground up building in Manhattan Beach. We’re also working on a project in Silicon Valley and a hotel in Tulum. The plan for Tulum is really special and we are excited to build in Mexico.
What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
I would say — work hard, play hard. And when I say play, it doesn’t necessarily mean to party, it means creating a balance. And whether that means playing as in exercising, meditating or just having time alone — you need to do both or you will burn out.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- This job is really 24/7 — anything can happen at any time and it does. Whether it’s a pipe bursting right when you sit down to dinner or a last minute Oscar party for 800 people we need to execute, there is always something.
- Stick to what you know, stay focused and don’t do projects just because you think it’ll be fun. We’ve done that and when it comes down to it, it is work, if you want to have fun, go on vacation. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun while you’re working, there just needs to be a balance.
- It’s so obvious, but people are the #1 most important thing in a business. Finding the right people, leading the right people, growing the right people, and having people that have your back. You can’t be successful without the right people.
- Sometimes you just have to walk away from a location. People make mistakes and you can keep going and going, but sometimes you just have to call it a day and move on. You’ll be successful somewhere else. It’s not a reflection on you, your team, or talents, it just wasn’t meant to be.
- The rewarding nature of building the family of your employees. As you grow, you watch people get married, become successful in other ways, or even have kids because they met in our restaurants. It feels good to see people start from the bottom and work their way to the top. We created these places for memories to be made. It’s beyond rewarding to know that we are a part of not only our guest’s journeys but our team’s as well.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
At BOA — the rarest wagyu is Snow Beef from Hokkaido, Japan — also known as the “holy grail of beef. It is available at very few restaurants in the U.S. It’s expensive but a must try at least once.
At Sushi Roku or Katana, you should really try an Omakase, defined as Chef’s choice and that’s where you tell the chef what you like and don’t like and they will take you on a journey and feed you.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Be hospitable, another version of The Golden Rule which is “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Think about being hospitable and like when you go to the Four Seasons and the person opens the door and says “welcome home”, it all goes back to having manners and I think that’d be a great thing for everyone.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!